THIS SHORESIDE STAPLE IS STACKED WITH SUPERLATIVES, FROM STUNNING OCEAN VIEWS TO A SWANKY AMBIANCE – BUT ACCORDING TO ITS OWNER, ITS MENU OF HYPER-FRESH ITALIAN-MEDITERRANEAN CLASSICS IS THE STAR OF THE SHOW
BY BLUE SULLIVAN PHOTOS BY ALEX BARRETO AND VIOLET KARYN PHOTOGRAPHY
Asking William Stavola to describe in a few words what makes Drifthouse by David Burke one of the most beloved restaurants on the Jersey Shore is a bit of a fool’s errand. His adoration for the iconic eatery is too suffused with joy to be brief. He takes pride in the innovative menu (by internationally feted superstar chef David Burke) of pasta and “the absolute freshest seafood found at the Jersey Shore” (some of it on display in custom-made lobster tanks), and the storied shoreline in Sea Bright where the restaurant is quaintly nestled.
“Drifthouse is like no other Jersey Shore restaurant,” Stavola said. “The location is iconic, literally steps from the ocean. You can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel the ocean. And we are open year round – a perfect place to let locals summer from our deck or watch the sunset over the river, or as the days gets cooler, to safely watch a storm roll in while having dinner.” In the summer of 2017, the Stavolas and chef Burke (a Monmouth County native) teamed up on an upcoming wine dinner. That dinner was a massive success, and the two formed a partnership a few months later. (The Stavolas noted they are proud of their relationship with the chef, adding, “David is the type of professional we can relate to. I don’t know anyone else who is more dedicated to his profession, and his word means everything.”)
Drifthouse opened in 2018, the first in a long line of swanky New Jersey restaurants for chef Burke; however, as Stavola pointed out, this location has been a part of the Stavola legacy for more than half a century. “Driftwood Cabana Club, where Drifthouse is located, has been in the Stavola family since 1957,” he said. “That adds a great sense of place to our family and to the thousands of club members who have experienced it.
Generations have grown up here. They learned to swim here, had their first date, and some have gotten married here on the beach. In a world that is constantly changing, this site and the ocean add a familiar sense of place, plus lots and lots of memories.” He noted that his is the fourth genera-tion of the Stavola family who have lived at the Jersey Shore, a further testament to the enduring affection they’ve had for the area. It was that fondness, plus the skill born from decades of generational experience in the hospitality business, that has helped the Stavola family weather storms, both metaphorical and literal.
“COVID was obviously a unique challenge to our business,” he explained. “When the shutdown began, we pivoted as quickly as possible to what became a robust take-out business. But our number one focus was keeping the staff safe, motivated, and their spirits high. Looking back now, we all feel a sense of reward and pride.”
A global pandemic isn’t the only hardship the Stavola family has overcome in the restaurant business. This generation of Stavolas opened their first restaurant in Sea Bright in September 2012. Longtime Shore residents will undoubtedly recognize the date’s significance, as Superstorm Sandy would devastate the region just a month later. “Eighty percent of Sea Bright’s structures were destroyed by the storm,” he explained. “Our club suffered a lot of damage.”
The Stavolas realized, while investigating the aftermath of the storm, they received a modicum of good fortune. The dining room, which had been set up the night before, was somehow completely untouched. “Not a thing was disturbed, not even a napkin out of place,” added Stavola. Facing down a thundering beast and not seeing even a single shifting dinner plate is the kind of providence that must instill incredible confidence in restaurateurs, perhaps essential in rebuilding after seeing so much around you shattered.
Drifthouse became the second business to reopen in Sea Bright after Sandy, doing so under the Stavola family’s own power via a commer-cial generator. As Stavola pointed out, rebuilding and recreating are necessary to survive and thrive in the restaurant industry. The restaurant takes pride in the eclectic and constantly evolving menu dreamed up by its celebrity chef and his expert kitchen. Yet Stavola believes the enduring appeal of Drifthouse also lies in its embrace of a kind of warm, family ethos. “My family and I know what we want when we dine out: great food and beverages, and a welcoming, comfortable environment.
We are always striving to make all our guests welcome, whether they are a day laborer or the owner of a hedge fund. Gathering with friends and family over good food and drink in a welcoming place is what connects us all. Our grandparents were first-generation Italians with incred-ibly strong values and work ethic. As a family, we work hard to honor their legacy.”
In an age of IG-ready cuisine and temperamental TV kitchen tyrants, the Stavola family’s decades of restaurant experience that spans several generations has prepared them to steer the often inclement waters of running a popular establishment.
“There are so many moving parts and so many things that can – and at times do – go wrong behind the scenes,” said Stavola. “Someone doesn’t show up for work, a critical ingredient is out of stock, a refrigerator breaks down…but each night we open at 4 p.m. for dinner regardless. This is something that many guests have no idea is happening, and it’s our job to make each night seem seamless from the moment you pull up in your car to the moment we serve you our exquisite house-made desserts.” Yet as exhausting as this daily dance might sound (just as it was for the generations of Stavolas that walked before him), Drifthouse’s owner still thrives on the exquisite ride of his industry, waxing poetically about the intoxicating feeling of watching everything fall into place. “It’s thrilling, rewarding, and worth all the risk,” he said.
DRIFTHOUSE by David Burke
1485 Ocean Avenue N, Sea Bright
732.530.9760 / drifthousedb.com / Instagram: @drifthousedb